The Faithful and Unfaithful Disciple, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), August 12, 2007

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Nineteenth Sunday in OT, Year C
August 12, 2007
Wis 18:6-9; Heb 11:1-2, 8-19; Lk 12:32-48

1) Once in St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asked aloud the harrowing question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8 ). That question is ever present and ever personal. The Lord says in today’s Gospel that the “Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” When he comes at that unforeseen time, he will judge us on the basis of our faith “working through love” (Gal 5:6).

2) If the Lord were to come right now, what faith would he find? Would he be able to say to you or to me, “Great is your faith!,” like he said to the Syro-Phoenician woman in the Gospel (Mt 15:28)? Or would he say, “O you of little faith?” (Mt 6:30; 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 17:20). Would he state about all of us together, “You are the ones who have stood by me faithfully in my trials” (Lk 22:28-29) or, rather, “This is a faithless and perverse generation” (Mt 17:17)? The Son of Man is indeed coming and what he wants to find — what he hopes to find — is FAITH. In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes both the FAITHFUL and the UNFAITHFUL way a person prepares for his coming.

3) Jesus says that the person with faith will be alert for the manifestation of Christ’s presence. He will not be afraid, but trust in the Father’s promise of a kingdom. For that reason, he will be working to build up an “unfailing treasure in heaven” and have his heart always “lifted up to the Lord,” who is his treasure. The lamp of his heart will be burning in love. He will be “dressed for action,” ready to respond immediately to the Lord whenever he makes his presence felt and knocks on the door of his life. He will guard his heart, lest any intruders break in. He will be always found “at work,” being a trustworthy steward of the Lord’s gifts. This faithful disciple will be acting in the Lord’s supposed absence just as he would if the Lord were present. Jesus promises that all such servants will be “blessed.”

4) The unfaithful servant, on the other hand, will convince himself that the Lord is “delayed in coming” and that he can therefore do whatever he wants in the meantime. He will think he can get away with hurting others, with getting drunk and living for his pleasures alone. He will deem he’ll always have time to change his behavior “later,” to tidy things up, to get his act together before he has to render an accounting. Such a steward is, plainly, unfaithful, just as unfaithful as a husband or wife would be if they cheated on a spouse in that spouse’s absence. Eventually that unfaithful servant will be caught off-guard, not because the Master wants to ambush him or catch him “red-handed,” but because the more one gets used to thinking the return won’t occur today, the less ready one will be on that day the master does come.

5) Our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews describes for us in greater detail this distinction between faith and the lack of it. It says, “faith is the assurance of what is hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” The faithful person is one who is SURE that the promises made by the Lord will be fulfilled (cf: Lk 1:45). The faithful person is one who is ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED in the reality of a world that extends far beyond the visible, the reality where the Invisible God lives, where heaven is, where grace abides. When confronted with a choice between the tangible, visible, here-and-now material world, and the world of God and trust in his promises, the faithful man or woman always chooses God. To return to the images of the Gospel, the faithful one is assured of the promise of the Lord’s return and is convinced of his presence, whereas the unfaithful person doubts the Lord’s promises and the Lord’s imminence.

6) The Bible does not often use definitions, as the Letter to the Hebrews does about faith. It most often describes truths by illustration (like Jesus does by his use of parables). That’s why the Letter to the Hebrews immediately turns to those who show us what true faith is. We see it embodied in Abraham, who has always been called “our father in faith.” As we read in today’s second reading, Abraham was so sure in the Lord’s promises, so convinced in the reality of who God is and therefore in the content of what God promised him, that, at 75 years old, he packed up his entire livelihood and moved to a far away land that God had vowed to show him eventually. Ten years later, when God promised him a son, he believed again, even though he was 85 and his wife 91 and they had not been able to conceive a child on their own. When given a choice between his common sense and the laws of biology on the one hand, and trusting in God’s promise on the other, Abraham chose to put his faith in God’s word. Thirteen years after that, when it seemed to him that God wanted him to sacrifice that son, Isaac, through whom he was going to become the “father of many nations,” Abraham trusted in God and was prepared to carry out that oblation until the angel of God stopped him. He did so, again, believing that if God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise, it must be, as Hebrews says, so that God could raise Isaac from the dead (v. 19). These episodes show us what truth faith is. It is a TRUST in God above all other things and, therefore, a trust in WHAT GOD SAYS as a result of a trust in God. To use theological terms, there is first an “act of faith,” by which we trust in a person, and then a belief in some “content” on the basis of the trust in the person who affirms it.

7) We see the same truths about faith illustrated in the life of Mary, our “mother in faith.” She trusted in God even when his angel told her she would conceive the Son of God in her womb without the help of a man. She trusted in God more than in what she knew about the laws of reproductions. That is why her cousin, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, was able to call her blessed, for “believing that what the Lord had promised to her would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45). Mary trusted in God even when her infant Son was being hunted down by assassins before his second birthday and they all had to flee to Egypt. She trusted in God even when her Son was lost for three days in the Temple. She trusted in God when her fellow Nazarenes were trying to throw Jesus from the cliff. She trusted in Him, that he knew what He was doing, even when she witnessed her own Son being mangled and murdered by his creatures. Because of her trust in God, she said, “Amen!,” “Fiat!” to all that God asked of her, even though it might have made little sense to her or anyone else prior to the resurrection. Jesus summarized his praise for her greatest merit — her attentive and obedient faith — by saying, about her and those who imitate her, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 8:21; 11:28). She heard, she believed, and she obeyed with loving trust.

8 ) As Catholics, the Lord wishes us to follow the example of Abraham and Mary, respectively our “father” and “mother” in the faith. The Lord calls us to trust in Him as they did, and to trust in what he has said to us, because of our trust in God. The “act of faith” for a Catholic is a trust in God the Father, who sent His Son to take on our nature, live and die for us to save us from us sins, who founded a Church on Peter and the Apostles and promised with the Father to send the Holy Spirit to guide that Church “into all truth” (Jn 16:13) and to prevent that Church from ever making a mistake — even ONCE — in something relative to what we need to believe (faith) or do (morals) to please God and enter into the fullness of his life in this world or in the next. That’s quite a sentence! But it’s an important one. We believe in what the Church teaches definitively about faith and morals not because we think a particular pope is smarter or holier than we are, but because we believe and trust in God who founded the Church and still guides her. A Catholic act of faith is one that accepts everything that God teaches us — directly or through the Church he founded — on account of our trust in God.

9) We see an illustration of this type of faith in the dramatic episode in Capernaum when Jesus announced that we would have to gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood (cf. Jn 6). After he announced this, many of his disciples — those whom Jesus had labored so hard to bring to the truth over the previous two years — thought Jesus was a lunatic and possibly even a cannibal. They said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can endure it?” And they abandoned Jesus. It was easy for them to be his followers when he was curing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the multitudes with a few fish and loaves of bread, walking on water, preaching with authority unlike their scribes and pharisees, and so much more. But when Jesus announced something that they found hard to believe, off they went, because they didn’t really believe in Jesus in the first place. After they have left, Jesus turned to his closest followers, the twelve, and asked them, “Do you, too, wish to go away?” His question was really, “Do you, too, have no faith in me?” That’s when St. Peter stood up and showed what real faith is. He said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” In other words, Peter was saying, “Lord, we have no clue about what you’re talking about and how we are going to eat your flesh and drink your blood. [Peter and the others would only discover this one year later during the Last Supper, when Jesus would take bread and wine, turn them into his body and blood, and give his body and blood to them under these non-sickening appearances]. But because we trust in you, Jesus, who have the words of eternal life, we will trust in what you say, even when it makes little sense.”

10) One great litmus test to determine if we have the type of true trust in God that constitutes the Catholic act of faith is to see whether we have faith when we find a teaching “difficult” or “hard to endure” like many of Jesus’ first disciples found his teaching on the Eucharist. When the teaching of Jesus or the Church he founded conflicts with our own ideas or those of popular culture, do we trust in God working through the Church he founded to proclaim the truth in every age, or do we trust more in ourselves and in human opinions? We can take a few modern issues and try to see whether, if Christ were to come unexpectedly right now, whether he would find true faith in us.

a. The reality and purpose of marriage in God’s divine plan — Do we believe, as the Church teaches, that marriage is the union not of any two adults, but of one man and one woman? Do we believe that it is God alone — and not a justice of the peace — who can join a man and a woman in marriage? Do we believe in the indissolubility of marriage and in the truth Jesus clearly teaches, that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11)? Do we believe, as the Church has always affirmed, that sexual relations are so precious and beautiful that they are reserved only for those who have given their whole lives to each other in a valid marriage? Or do we put more trust in Hollywood’s support for casual sex, multiple divorce-and-remarriage, and same-sex unions? Simply put, do we believe that God and the Church he founded are right in these areas or wrong?

b. Various bioethical offenses against human life, like in-vitro fertilization, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning and abortion — Do we trust in God’s way of bringing new life into the world, through the loving conjugal communion of husband and wife, or do we think that life should be able to be manufactured in a laboratory? Do we believe that a child’s life should be reverenced as the image and likeness of God, or do we believe that the child be able to be destroyed by the choice of a parent in the womb or killed by doctors to harvest stem cells for the benefit of others? In short, do we believe that God is the Lord of Life, or do we believe that we are the lord of life?

c. The role of the Church in general — Do we trust that God knew what he was doing in founding the Church as he did on sinful men like Peter and the apostles (and their successors) and telling them “whoever hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16)? Do we believe that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church to “all truth”? Do we believe, as the Church teaches, that voluntarily missing Sunday Mass is a mortal sin — just as mortal as murder, blasphemy, idolatry and adultery — and of the need to confess our sins in the sacrament of confession? Or do we believe that the Church Christ founded can err in any of these areas relevant to faith or morals? In short, do we trust in our own opinions more than we do in the clear teaching of the Church?

11) What does it mean if a Catholic does not believe in the clearly defined teaching of Christ or the Church in any of these areas or others? Can someone legitimately be a “cafeteria Catholic,” and pick and choose what he or she wants to believe? If someone believes 99% of what the Church teaches, for example, but just thinks that the Church is wrong, for example, about the inability to ordain women as priests: is that person 99% faithful or unfaithful? For centuries, the Church has taught that such a cafeteria Catholic has no real faith at all, but only some opinions that happen to concord with Church teaching.

12) To understand why that is — and see, yet again, what genuine faith is — we can turn to the explanation given by St. Thomas Aquinas 800 years ago. After Christ, St. Thomas is probably the greatest teacher in the history of the Church. In his famous Summa Theologiae, he asked whether someone who rejects certain doctrines taught by the Church definitively on faith and morals has Catholic faith in believing the doctrines with which he agrees. His responded by saying that such a person “doesn’t hold the other articles of faith about which he does not err in the same way as one of the faithful does, namely by adhering simply to the Divine Truth [God]; but he holds the things that are of faith by his own will and judgment…. If, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. …It is clear that such a [person] with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will” (ST II-II,5,3).

13) In other words, if one wants to say that the Church that Jesus founded could be in error in teaching definitively on the immorality of “therapeutic cloning,” then on what grounds would one believe that the Church would be right in proclaiming the immorality of torture, or abortion, or even in proclaiming the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity? If he doesn’t think the Church has the authority to teach definitively on the immorality of vasectomies, on what grounds does he think the Church can teach about Mary’s Immaculate Conception? If a person truly has faith, it means that he trusts in God, and because of that trust in God — who sent his Son, who founded the Church, and entrusted to her the Holy Spirit to guide her into all truth — he trusts in what God teaches through that Church, whether it concerns the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist or the sinfulness of the use of artificial contraception in marriage.

14) It goes without saying that a faithful Catholic may have QUESTIONS about certain teachings, but these questions need to be made from the point of view of “faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm); one still believes, even though one doesn’t understand a particular teaching fully. “1000 QUESTIONS do not constitute a single DOUBT,” Cardinal Newman said in the 19th century. Once someone starts to doubt the truth of a particular teaching of Christ or the Church he founded, and think that Christ or the Church is wrong, then one is making oneself the source of truth rather than God.

15) It’s clear in the examples of Abraham and Mary that God never promised that believing in Him would be easy. After all, for us Christians, we are called to believe that someone who looked similar to other Jewish men 2000 years ago was really the eternal Son of God. We are called to believe that he was conceived in and born of a virgin by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, that he rose from the dead three days after a bloody, public execution and ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Father and says, “Come, follow me!” Compared to believing these truths, believing what the Church Jesus founded teaches about a particular moral or doctrinal issue is easy!

16) But like the apostles in the Gospel, we will need to say often to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Lk 17:5). The Lord will hear that prayer, not by eliminating or watering down the aspects of the faith that are most challenging, but by giving us more trust in Him so that we might see in those aspects of the faith his at times inscrutable wisdom. Our faith is challenging, because we are called in faith, like Abraham, to leave our own comfortable homeland and be led by God to a place he’ll show us, often being asked to sacrifice what may be dear to us and to believe in promises that exceed our human imagination. But we, like Abraham, do this “desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (second reading). This is the only path to the eternal promised land.

17) “When the Lord comes, will he find faith on earth?” That is the question. Will he find us trusting in him and therefore trusting in his teaching and in his promises with conviction and certainty? The Lord promises that when he comes, if he finds his servants “watchful and ready” he will “have them sit down to eat and … come to serve them.” We have come here today out of faith, and the Lord does not let this faith go unrewarded. He himself comes to meet us without delay, “girds himself with an apron” as he did during the Last Supper, and feeds us with the food of everlasting life. May this celebration of the Eucharist increase our faith in God’s words and in his word-made-flesh, so that we may always grasp on to his promises and come through faith to their eternal fulfillment.